Another Country Diary gumboots
Another Country Diary

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18 January '03
During the morning, there was nothing to suggest Saturday was an unusual day, the air was smoky but I worked in the garden and walked down to get bread and pay the newsagent bill. Jan went to the gym, and the girls where at work. Kate rang about lunchtime to say the sky was really black in Tuggeranong and the smoke very thick, but they kept working.

 In the next few hours the cloud rolled down towards us, black and with a noise at times that sounded like a thunderstorm approaching. Jackie came home, saying the smoke was so thick in Fyshwick that she had to use the headlights. We were worried enough to turn on the radio. I put fresh batteries into the portable and the first voice I heard was Leanne who announces/produces my web pieces on ABC radio 666. There was then a growing realization that something really dreadful was happening with the fires outside of Canberra.  Kate called on the home phone saying the Optus mobile network was out and that she was going to pickup a friend who had to evacuate her house in Curtin. 

Jan fretted until Kate arrived home with Cherie (and a pet rat in a cage, much to the dog's interest.) She'd been turned away from the main streets and luckily knew enough locally to get through and get her friend..

All afternoon, I was obsessed with the colour of  the light. There was weirdness and a sense of unease even being safe in our garden, and it was a long time before  the stories of loss and damage started to build on the radio. The radio was 'road closures', 'stay inside', 'use wet towels' and no-one gave any overview because they didn't know themselves. We hooked up the horsefloat in case we had to move Kate's horses, and we couldn't reach the people whose paddock they stay in by phone, so she was anxious.
I used to have a 'tobacco' camera filter that made the light look like this, it's probably called something else PC now.

The radio had nothing to say and the commentators were prattling as they do in an emergency when they don't have anything to report. We turned it off.
The cloud cap shut down over us and the sun went down hours early, only to appear briefly through a thinner band along the horizon at sunset.

We called a few times to Jan's sister who lives at Gilmore one of the  suburbs placed on alert. Bev's husband was away at a conference in China, but her daughter was there to help prepare. They'd done it before over the years. Her husband Graham was regional head of the State Parks for this area and every year spent anxious summers alert for fires.
I switched the camera from Daylight to Tungsten, even white balanced it, to try and capture the intensity of the colours.

At 6.00pm the colour temperature of the light was the same as a tungsten bulb. By then we knew someone had died, and homes lost.
That's what the colour of the sun looked like when we saw it briefly.

The radio was turned on for each news bulletin and they announced that the ABC TV news was returning from it's summer holiday at the beach to show us some pictures.  
The video didn't help explain much. The broad picture of where the destroyed suburbs were, why the fire moved so fast, needed just one good graphic map. But the ABC -TV must have left their coloured pencils at the beach or couldn't find anyone who could draw. When the sports results came on, we went back to the radio and Leanne.

Through the night we listened as we woke, and I went outside a few times to see what was happening and if there were sparks and ash falling. The wind change dropped the temperature here but didn't reach far into the bushfire area. We heard that the fires had burnt out Bookham and Burrinjuck and we feared for Bruce's property. Bruce has a 'serious' much-more-than-a-hobby farm outside of Bookham, near the Burrinjuck Dam about an hour out of Canberra. He's worked hard improving his wool quality and won prizes for his sheep and fine quality fleeces. It didn't sound good.

Sunday morning we got more phone calls from friends checking on us, and the power was spiking so I didn't restart the computers. The mobile network limped back up - lesson, don't expect mobile phones to be useful in a disaster. The Canberra Times Sunday edition sold out by 9.00am. so there was no press coverage. I spent all day cutting back overhanging trees, cleaning gutters, taking branches to the tip. We fitted a new tap and hose to the front corner of the house. All the things we should have done months ago, ready for summer fires.

After all day of hearing about danger and disaster,  the girls wanted to go out on Sunday night but we persuaded them to stay home. They heard lot's of places were closed anyway. 

On Monday, we were all away which made us anxious even though there was no danger. I went to Sydney, Jan and Kate flew to Melbourne to look at Universities for Kate. I called the office a few times and they were subdued, everyone knew someone who had lost their house or had a lucky escape.  On Tuesday morning, checking the email the box was full of forwarded messages. (That's how we cope with these events and communicate now, with email attached graphics, group emailed stories, URLs of sites). Most of them were ordinary and dull office chat, but there was this one from Bruce that I think you'll like. 

The Fires......

Hi John thanks for your email. As for the farm.......?
Bruce the farmer got a call from his neighbours around 6pm Saturday to say that there was a strong chance a fire was heading toward Burrinjuck. This prediction proved correct. I reached the area around 7.30pm to be told that my farm was  "gone" and I with a lot of other blokes who knew what they were doing (as opposed to me, who didn't) was seconded to help protect my neighbour John Walker's house and out buildings. Basically we graded fire breaks with tractors and then sat and watch the fire approach us for about half an hour before the effluent hit the fan. We were racing here and there in utes (I drove) with fire fighting gear and had a win, stopping the fire about 5 metres from John's house. Regrettably, another neighbour Brendan Lunney about 800 metres from John Walker's, lost his house and a truck  (see attached Pic) . 

Whilst an extremely unfortunate occurrence, Brendan's principal residence is in Sydney so the consequences are not quite as bad. Once the fire had passed and night fell we were treated to huge fire shows as trees continued to burn out then crash to the ground like artillery rounds roughly every 10 minutes or so.
There wasn't much else we could do other than drive along the roads avoiding fallen and burning trees and spot spray strainer posts. Then we just sat up through the night keeping an eye on the wind in case it caused us more grief and grabbing some sleep. We lost power fairly early in the night too which was an additional pain in the bum. Daylight revealed huge areas of blackened paddocks and smouldering trees and spot fires. We started shooting sheep at first light on my neighbours place and there were many more that had perished in the fire. It is not a pretty sight to find their carcasses pressed up against fences. My friend Lindsay Roberts drove out fairly early from Canberra and gave us a valuable hand.

I couldn't believe my luck when we got to my block. Despite around 50% of it being burnt, my ewes and lambs were un-touched and the shed was still standing. My 5 rams were the worst affected and today (Monday) on veterinary advice I had to put them down. I was quite proud of "my boys" and that hurt a bit.  

Naturally most of the fencing is stuffed and  I lost 50% of what little feed there was for the stock to graze. I do think however that the drought for once did us a favour, as the paddocks were pretty bare (except for the ram paddock) so the fire didn't get a full run through the place. But now it's visits to the farm every couple of days to hand feed.

Today, Lindsay and I did some interim "shonky" repairs to the boundary fences to keep the sheep in and took the attached pics of my place. That's it for now and all things considered I consider myself a very fortunate "Poofter Canberra Farmer"


I'd spoken to Bruce on his mobile early on Monday and he had told me of his luck and was then hoping that he could save the rams who had burnt feet, and was giving them injections against infection. I can imagine how he felt to have to shoot them later in the day. 

There was one nice anecdote that Bruce told us later. He got a phone call from the stud farm who had sold him his rams over the years, who said they were delivering a couple of large hay bales to help him with his hand feeding. Bruce protested, saying "Thanks but you needn't. You're feeling the drought yourselves." They insisted, saying they appreciated his support and now it was their turn to help him. Nice.
Fred Harden  
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